EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Despite the often-uneven play of Mark Sanchez through the first 57 games of his career, Rex Ryan's support of his quarterback and belief he gave the New York Jets the best chance to win never wavered -- not when Sanchez threw five interceptions in the fifth game of his rookie season, not when he committed the "butt fumble" on Thanksgiving night and not at any point in between.
In game No. 58, Ryan's patience, and perhaps his faith in Sanchez, ran out.
Third-stringer Greg McElroy, active only because Tim Tebow was sidelined with broken ribs, made his NFL debut by coming off the bench in relief of an ineffective Sanchez and capped his first drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland on the first play of the fourth quarter as the Jets edged the Arizona Cardinals, 7-6, in a remarkable battle of offensive ineptitude Sunday afternoon.
Sanchez, who entered the game with eight turnovers in his last five games and 15 turnovers overall this season, went 10-for-21 with three interceptions and a 21.4 passer rating in the Jets' first 10 series before Ryan made the switch.
"It's just something I sensed and felt, and when you're around this game long enough, you get that feeling that you know what, I've seen enough, it's time to make that change," Ryan said. "I thought our defense was doing a tremendous job, almost like a hot goalie standing on his head. That's basically what it felt like and I just felt like it was time to make that move."
Ryan said he wasn't ready yet to declare a starter for next week's game at Jacksonville, which happens to be Tebow's hometown. But there may not be much of a choice to make after McElroy (5-of-7 for 29 yards) kept the Jets' slim playoff hopes alive by coming in cold -- he took no first-team snaps in practice last week -- and displaying the type of poise and efficiency Sanchez has rarely exhibited this season.
McElroy entered with 4:48 left in the third and marched the Jets 69 yards in 10 plays on his first drive, a series he extended by completing his first NFL pass, an eight-yarder to Stephen Hill, on 3rd-and-6. Three plays later, with no receivers open, McElroy scrambled to the right sideline for a three-yard gain and drew a late hit and an unnecessary roughness penalty from Dan Williams.
The Jets scored four plays later, and after McElroy retrieved the ball, he leaped into the arms of tight end Konrad Reuland, who went to the same high school as Sanchez.
McElroy was even more impressive in sealing the game with a 14-play, 71-yard drive that ate up the final 7:55 and ended with McElroy taking two kneeldowns after the Jets advanced to the Cardinals' one-yard-line. McElroy extended the drive with a perfectly thrown 13-yard pass on 3rd-and-9 to Jeremy Kerley, who was draped by Patrick Peterson.
"I really liked the way he controlled that clock, and it's no surprise, he comes from a great program," Ryan said of McElroy, who led Alabama to the 2009 national championship. "He's smart, he knows how to handle that clock and (he did) a tremendous job of it."
The fans certainly had their say in the quarterback controversy. The less-than-capacity crowd at MetLife Stadium, which had been chanting for McElroy since the first half, was thrilled with the change and greeted McElroy with a standing ovation as he trotted on to the field at 3:09 PM ET to Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine."
Afterward, it was McElroy who exuded a starter's aura as he met the media in a Jets T-shirt and cap and with eye black still on his face and deftly answered the questions about his rapid ascent up the depth chart.
"I learned when I was in JV football as a sophomore and I threw three picks in my first five attempts that it's never too high with the highs and never too low with the lows," McElroy said. "Stay even-keeled and obviously that's what I'm going to try to do."
Sanchez, meanwhile, wore a three-piece suit shortly after he was reportedly consoled in the locker room by Ryan.
"Obviously not my day," Sanchez said. "But I'm really happy for the team and I'm happy for Greg. He came in and played his butt off. He got us a big win."
The loss for the Cardinals -- who have lost eight in a row after opening the season 4-0 -- magnified their weakness at quarterback. Third-stringer Ryan Lindley, just two weeks removed from replacing John Skelton in the middle of a game, was 10-of-31 for 72 yards in presiding over an offense that was 0-for-15 on third down and generated just 137 yards.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he considered going back to Skelton but decided the offensive issues were unit-wide.
"It's one of the things that we talked about, but you always do what you think gives you the best chance and that's what we did," Whisenhunt said.
The two teams were equally awful on offense in a comical first half, which Cardinals kicker Jay Feely ended with a 48-yard field goal to give Arizona a 3-0 lead.
Sanchez and Lindley combined for four interceptions while Jets kicker Nick Folk missed both his field goal attempts. One bounced off the left goal post and the other bounced off the right goal post.
Of the 15 possessions the Jets and Cardinals had, 10 ended in four plays or less. The two teams gained 267 yards on 70 plays, an average of 3.81 yards per play. The longest play of the half came on a fake punt by the Cardinals when safety Rashad Johnson took the direct snap deep in Arizona territory and raced 40 yards to set up Feely's field goal, which spared the Jets and Cardinals the ignobility of playing the first scoreless first half in the NFL since the Broncos and Bears dueled to a 0-0 tie Dec. 11, 2011.
Things didn't get any better in the second half, which opened with the two teams combining for 24 yards on 20 plays from scrimmage over their first six series. By that point, Ryan, at least, had seen enough and finally pulled Sanchez for McElroy.
NOTES: The Cardinals haven't beaten the Jets since Nov. 23, 1975, back when they were in St. Louis. The two teams have played just six times since then. ... Tebow was inactive 10 days after the Thanksgiving loss to the Jets in which Rex Ryan said he wouldn't play him in anything but an extreme emergency. ... Folk missed multiple field goals in a game for the fifth time in his career but the second time in the last three weeks. He was 2-for-4 against the Rams Nov. 18 and is 4-of-9 since connecting on his first 11 attempts of the season. ... Jets tight end Dustin Keller (left foot) and Cardinals linebacker Paris Lenon (left shoulder) each exited the game in the first half with injuries while Jets running back Joe McKnight (ribs) left in the third quarter.